We sat down with Laura L. Carstensen to talk to her about her work at the Stanford Center on Longevity. As a Stanford grad myself, I was fascinated to learn all about the work they’re doing to not only study longevity, but the multifunctional approach they’re taking to help everyone have a longer life. Read and find out everything she has to say about getting older and living well.
Name, Age, Where do you live?
Laura Carstensen, I’m 64. I’m a professor of psychology at Stanford university where I’m also the founding director of the Stanford Center of Longevity.
Give us an overview of your career.
I am trained as a clinical psychologist and in lifespan development. The work I am known for most in the field is socioemotional selectivity theory. People change fundamentally in profound ways by how much time they perceive is left in life. In youth, who perceive a limitless future in front of them, they’re interested in taking new risks, expanding their horizons. As people grow older and the timelines are shorter, they tend to pursue goals about meaning, emotional well-being, and satisfaction. It helps to see why aging improves mental health and emotional well-being, right?
How long have you been at Stanford?
My first job was at Indiana University and then I came to Stanford in ’80.
What inspired you to found the Center on Longevity?
The Stanford Magazine did a special issue on aging one year, 2004 or 2005. They interviewed faculty who were studying aging – a number of people. I was interviewed about aging societies and how they change. I said, “We have to bring everyone along or we’re going to be broke.” The tools for a long life need to be distributed to everyone because there’s not enough people in the 1% to succeed. They made that pull quote. A month later Richard Rainwater called and said, “I’ve got more money than I’ve got brains. What do you need?”
It’s before you could google someone!
I thought I was talking to an insane person. But Richard thought we needed to change the way we live, and that Stanford was a place where we could have a real impact on longevity and society. At his urging, he pulled me into something I never expected to be a part of. And now we have a very vibrant center! 150 faculty members involved. Design challenges for products that help with longevity, financial studies, an online division with research about intergenerational relationships and cognitive fitness. It’s different from most research places that give seed money to individual professors for individual work. Instead we say, “Who can we pull together to help solve that?”
So you take a multifunctional approach as opposed to a functional approach?
Financial security. Mind, mobility, and money. Mobility division is where we’re interested in physical fitness. We’re a small center and when we started we weren’t going to compete. We’re not taking on curing Alzheimer’s. But we are interested in keeping people physically fit so they can navigate their world. And when they can’t, how can we use design to change that? Like eyeglasses! In the 1800s if you were fifty and couldn’t see, you were disabled.Technically by 64, you’re disabled. But that never crosses my mind because I put on my glasses. In everything we do, we’re drawing from different divisions. It’s like three legs of a stool – if any one of them is missing, people have a very hard time living a long life.
Aging means such a different thing these days. Can you give us a context of what ‘aging’ means in today’s society?
People are doing better today if we take the long view. There’s no question that we’re better than our ancestors in the 1950s. Mortality risk – 68 really is the new 59 for men. There are similar numbers there for women. You can think about age in terms of number of years born or risk of dying is following year. If we just measure how many chronic diseases there are, it’s true that the older the society, the more diagnoses there will be. The real issue for me is whether people are functionally impaired. You can have diabetes and hypertension and live your life happily. Because we have treatments for those!
Where do you see the Center on Longevity in five, ten, fifteen years? What do you think will be happening year?
If I go to 20 years, I don’t think we’ll have solved all the problems. Backing up to right now, we are at a critical period. We are at a point where we’re either going to change the narrative or cement it in stone. If all of us Boomers fade away at 62, we’ll be paying for it for decades. I’m going to keep working, keep jogging, playing tennis – if we make that happen then we will change dramatically how people think about aging.
Our hope is that we shift the conversation around the word aging. We shift away from aging and towards longevity. Problems we see in old age have their origins much much earlier in life.There are so many challenges so we address longevity and begin to build a world so the kids on the playground today are financially secure, physically fit, and mentally vibrant when they are centenarians.
Your mission is “to accelerate and implement scientific discoveries, technological advances, behavioral practices, and social norms so that century long lives are healthy and rewarding”. What are some of the behavioral practices and social norms we can work on in our own lives?
Reduce age segregation! The world today discourages relationships that span generations. We need to change that. Longer lives mean four and five generations in one family alive! We need to be able to take advantage of different strengths that appear at different stages in life.
The hardest thing right now is that there’s nothing in our evolutionary history that makes it easy for us to imagine the distant future. So really, it means preparing. If we talk about old age, we talk about the percent of people who have difficulty because of muscle and bone loss. It means saving money, exploiting compound interest, working out throughout your life so you arrive at old age in better shape. Exercise becomes more important the older you get, not less.
For people who are particularly interested in your work, what’s the best way to stay informed and follow along? Or even get involved if that’s a possibility.
Our website is the best way to access the center. I encourage people to pay attention to the new Map of Life, which I think is going to be the most interesting thing we’ve ever done, as an unbiased opinion. And of course, if they’re interested, we are always accepting donations.
What would your superpower be?
It would be about education. The world is improving because of education, especially the education of girls. I want to fuel that.
If you had a warning label, what would it say?
Probably: you’re going to live a very long time. You’re gonna celebrate your 100th birthday.